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Vedic Tradition Archives - Page 2 of 3 - varnamvarnam | Page 2
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Tag Archives | Vedic Tradition

The Queen and Vedic Sacrifice

In one of the Naneghat caves — located in the Western ghats — there are some life size sculptures of few people whose major features have been destroyed. But from the inscriptions we know these members of the Satavahana dynasty (200 B.C.E – 220 C.E): the king Simuta Satavahana, queen Nayanika/Naganika, prince Bhayala, maharathi Tranakayira, prince Haku-Sri, and prince Satavahana[1]

In the same cave there is another inscription which is in three parts: invocation to Brahmin deities, biographical details of an a queen, list of Vedic sacrifices and the donations given. The queen is mentioned as a daughter, as a wife, and as a mother; she was well acquainted with initiation ceremonies, vows and sacrifices. She also performed or was responsible for twenty sacrifices including the Rajasuya and Asvamedha[2].

Women performing Vedic sacrifices? But didn’t we just learn from UCLA 9A course that according to the Manusmriti women were not allowed to listen to the Vedas? If you go by the UCLA chronology, the Manusmriti was compiled during the Satavahana period. So what is the explanation?

Since the original inscriptions are partially destroyed, it is hard to figure out the exact details, but they have not been damaged so bad that we cannot reconstruct what might have happened. According to one interpretation, the queen must have performed those sacrifices in the company of her husband. This agrees with what we see in the Athirathram ceremony even now. But then according to another epigrapher, she performed all the sacrifices as a wife, except the last three which she performed through a priest. In fact she herself gave the sacrificial free of cows. The explanation then was, even though women could not perform Vedic  sacrifices, it was not applicable to women who ruled as regents or ruled without their husband[2].

Now there is no mention of the name of the queen who performed these sacrifices. So how can we assume that it was Naganika and not some one from a local family? One clue is that these sacrifices were expensive affairs. There may not have been many families who could afford it. Among the sculptures on the wall, Naganika is the only woman; she is also the only Satavahana queen to be featured on coins. This indicates that she was unlike any other queen of that dynasty and the majority opinion is that the queen who performed the Vedic sacrifice is Naganika[2].

Now independent of the identity of the person who did the sacrifice, it is obvious that a woman performed the sacrifice and inscribed it for posterity. Was this an isolated incident? Maybe. But it is important that to know that the inscription was carefully written with details of the sacrifice and the donations paid. The queen also made sure that it was written not in Sanskrit, but in Prakrit, so that common people would know about it[2].

So what about the rules in Manusmriti? Here is a better explanation.

References:

  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009). 
  2. Kirit K. Shah, The Problem of Identity: Women in Early Indian Inscriptions(Oxford University Press, USA, 2002).
  3. Thanks to Michel Danino for this comment.
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UCLA 9A: The Dark Skinned Dasas

In the lecture on Vedas, as part of the  Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India course at UCLA, the instructor makes few points about the Vedic period which again shows that mostly outdated information or incomplete information is still being taught (Lecture of 10/2/2009). 

When he talks about the Vedic gods — Agni, Varuna, Indra, Ushas — he notes that they are connected to the elements. This, he explains, is not surprising since the Aryans were pastoralists concerned about the whims of nature. Though it looks convincing, the shallowness of this observation can be understood only by reading better books on that period.

The Aryans did not just have a childlike wonder towards the natural forces; they also had a philosophy behind it. The Rg Vedic gods did not just keep order in the physical universe. They also kept moral order[1]. In the Mantras, there are expressions like ‘guardians of rta’ and ‘practicers of rta’. For example Varuna is not just the god of sky and heavenly light, but also the one who fixed the laws of the physical universe which cannot be violated. It is said that no sin escapes his attention[2].

The instructor mentions another point in his confusing Aryan invasion narrative: He says that the Rg Veda notes that

  1. the incoming people attacked forts and citadels
  2. subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas.

An analysis of this statement shows there is a Grand Canyon wide gap between what we know now and what the instructor is teaching.

The theory of the forts and citadels comes from the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. When he saw thirty seven skeletons in Mohejo-daro, Indra stood accused for he was purandara or the ‘fort destroyer’. Later Western archaeologists themselves noted that there was not a single bit of evidence to suggest an armed invasion of Harappa; none of the skeletons were in the area of the citadels. Also to add more nails to this coffin, it was found that the skeletons were from a period after the abandonment of the city and only one skeleton had a lesion caused by a weapon[3].

This nasal debate was started by Max Müller in 1854 based on a solitary reference to the word anasah.He thought this word meant noseless or snub nosed. In 1891, in the eyes of British ethnographer Herbert Hope Risley, this solitary reference became frequent references. By 1967 some Western scholars thought that the word probably meant faceless instead of noseless. Nevertheless they decided to go with Max Müller[3].

A proper response was given by Sri Aurobindo. He noted that the word anasah does not mean noseless. Even if it did mean noseless, he said it could not be a reference to the Dravidian nose which was as good as any Aryan nose. Another possibility is that the noseless description could refer to the tribal people. In fact there is an equivalent word in the language of the Bhil tribe. But the word in Bhil tribe means unethical not noseless[3].

Indian scholars meanwhile read anasah as an-asa meaning devoid of fair speech.This makes sense because the words Arya, Dasa and Dasyu appear mostly with reference to hymns about Indra. The Aryans worshipped Indra while the Dasas or Dasyus were without rites, of different rites, non-sacrificers, without prayers, without Brahmin priests, and without Indra. This word appears in a passage where Dasyus are also described as having defective organs of speech; maybe they were referring to the Dasyus as uncivilized or uncultured[3]

Thus you see two groups of people who disagreed on rituals, but there is nothing to suggest a racial divide. Since the UCLA instructor is a proponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, there is one version of which suggests that the Dasas were Indo-Europeans who arrived earlier than the Vedic people.

What about the dark skin? This comes from two words — krishna and asikini — which mean black. These words are used to refer to black clouds, black demons, the power of darkness and a demon named Krishna.

According to one Western scholar the krishna is a symbolic expression for darkness. According to Prof. Michael Witzel, for Vedic poets black meant evil and not skin color. In 1999 Hock reexamined all these passages and concluded that this skin color was just a mechanism to justify European imperialism; Ambedkar had made that conclusion much earlier.

For more than a century Indian scholars have challenged this racial interpretation. For more than half a century Western scholars have agreed with this. Still in 2009, Max Müller’s 19th century racial interpretation is being taught. 

References:

  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009).
  2. M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass Pub, 2000).
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate(Oxford University Press, USA, 2004). 
Comments { 8 }

Who all had horses?

After reading Wendy Doniger’s new book,The Hindus : An Alternative History, Lekhni investigated if Aryans were cattle thieves. In her post she mentioned the symbolism behind the conversation between Sarama and the Panis who stole cattle. This story is important, not just for the issue of cattle stealing, but also for finding out if Aryans really did bring horses to India.

According to the Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi, “the hymn says nothing about stolen cattle, but is a direct, blunt demand for tribute in cattle, which the PaNis scornfully reject. They are then warned of dire consequences.” But it was not just cattle which the PaNis had; they had horses too. Guess who else had horses? The Dasyus whom the Aryans defeated when they invaded/migrated to India

For instance, Indra-Soma, by means of the truth (eva satyam), shatters the stable where Dasyus were holding “horses and cows” (ashvyam goh).65 In another hymn, Indra’s human helpers find the Pani’s “horses and cattle”: “The Angirasas gained the whole enjoyment of the Pani, its herds of the cows and the horses.”

The most striking passage is from the famous dialogue between the divine hound Sarama, Indra’s intransigent emissary, and the Panis, after she has discovered their faraway den, where they jealously hoard their “treasures.” Sarama boldly declares Indra’s intention to seize these treasures, but the Panis are unimpressed and threaten to fight back; they taunt her: “O Sarama, see the treasure deep in the mountain, it is full of cows and horses and treasures (gobhir ashvebhir vasubhir nyrsah). The Panis guard it watchfully. You have come in vain to a rich dwelling.”

Every verse makes it clear that all these treasures, horses included, belong to the Panis; at no point does Sarama complain that these are stolen goods: “I come in search of your great treasures,” she declares at first, and the Panis would not be insolent enough to taunt her with goods seized from the Aryans; yet Sarama considers that Indra is fully entitled to them. [The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

Even though it is not mentioned that the Panis stole the cows and horses, Doniger’s translation makes that statement. Imagine the horse riding Aryans come thundering down the Khyber pass to see the natives treating cattle and horses as treasure. 

In fact one theory explains this from a migrationist point of view. According to the two wave theory  two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them.  These folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[2][3]. Thus the battle between Aryans, Dasas and Panis were actually battles between earlier migrants and the new ones. There is only one problem though: a genetic study published last month from Stanford University found no evidence of migration from the steppes since 7000 years back.

But does this ashva mean the physical horse — the Equus Caballus — or something else? The Rg Veda has quite a few references to the horse which means that if taken literally, we should see horse bones all over North-West India. But we don’t. That is because the horse was a rare animal then as it is now.

So how should one read the text? Sri Aurobindo said you need proper background:

in his time, he said that these [scholars] lacked the background necessary to properly read this largely spiritual literature [Vedas]. Aurobindo spoke on the authority of the native Indian tradition, which prescribes the prerequisites to understand and interpret these texts. In general, anybody who wants to write any commentary or similar work, especially on the Vedas should at the minimum know these Vedangas (literally, the limbs of the Vedas) apart from knowing the Vedas themselves:[Wendy Doniger is a Syndrome]

As far back as 1912, Sri Aurobindo had suggested that ashva would have meant strength or speed before it was named for the horse.

The cow and horse, go and ashva, are constantly associated. Usha, the Dawn, is described as gomati ashvavati; Dawn gives to the sacrificer horses and cows. As applied to the physical dawn gomati means accompanied by or bringing the rays of light and is an image of the dawn of illumination in the human mind. Therefore ashvavati also cannot refer merely to the physical steed; it must have a psychological significance as well. A study of the Vedic horse led me to the conclusion that go and ashva represent the two companion ideas of Light and Energy, Consciousness and Force….[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

Also

For the ritualist the word go means simply a physical cow and nothing else, just as its companion word, ashva, means simply a physical horse…. When the Rishi prays to the Dawn, gomad viravad dhehi ratnam uso ashvavat, the ritualistic commentator sees in the invocation only an entreaty for “pleasant wealth to which are attached cows, men (or sons) and horses”. If on the other hand these words are symbolic, the sense will run, “Confirm in us a state of bliss full of light, of conquering energy and of force of vitality.”[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

With this symbolism, if we go back to the text which mentions that Dasyus and Panis it can be interpreted  that demons had light and power which they kept for themselves, but it was the duty of rishis to recover it and establish cosmic order. And we are looking for imaginary horses.

References:

  1. Michel Danino, The Horse and the Aryan Debate, Journal of Indian History and Culture September 2006, no. 13: 33-59. 
  2. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
Comments { 5 }

The Aryan Debate: Horse

In 1974, archaeologists J. P. Joshi and A. K. Sharma found horse bones in Surkotada, a Harappan site in Gujarat. This was a sensational discovery: first, it was the bones of a horse and second, it was dated to the period 2265 B.C.E. to 1480 B.C.E, which corresponds to the Mature Harappan period[1].

Finding horse remains, especially from India, are always controversial. For example, one of the earliest claims of horse is dated to 4500 B.C.E in the Aravalli range in Rajasthan – the same place from where the Harappans got their copper. This period is the same time when horse was first domesticated in the world. So there are questions: was the artifact obtained from a Bronze Age level even though the site was Neolithic? Was it really a horse — the Equus Caballus —rather than a donkey or onager.?

Due to the large size of bones and teeth of an onager, it is hard to distinguish it from a horse. Also sometimes the reports that come with excavations have insufficient measurements, drawings, and photographs required for independent assessment[1]. Due to this the findings are always suspect; it is always concluded that the horse arrived quite late to India.

Such questions arise because in the Indo-Aryan debate — if Vedic civilization pre-dated, co-existed or followed the Harappan civilization — a key factor is the horse. In this debate the main argument against Harappa being Indo-Aryan can be summarized as follows.

  1. According to the popular version of Indian pre-history, horse — an animal not native to India — was bought to India by the Indo-Aryans when they came in 1500 B.C.E. There is no evidence of horse in India before 1500 B.C.E.
  2. Among the numerous seals found in Harappa there is none which represent a horse, while other animals like the bull, buffalo, and goat are represented.
  3. In Rg Veda, the horse (asva) has cultural and religious significance. Since there is absence of horse in Harappa, it can only mean that the Vedic people arrived after the decline of the Harappan civilization.

The find at Surkotada upset this narrative because it crossed a lakshman rekha into Mature Harappan and also violated the threshold for the Indo-Aryan arrival. Hence the findings themselves became suspect – at least till 1991.

The eminent archaeozoologist, Sandor Bokonyi, was in Pune to attend a workshop on ‘Prehistoric contacts between South Asia and Africa’ at the Deccan College. Following the conference he spent some time in Delhi where the Excavation Branch of the ASI showed him the finds from Surkotada which consisted of six samples, mostly teeth. After examining the artifacts, he concluded that they were not of a half-ass, but a real domesticated horse[7].
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A 4000 year old Leper's Tale

Dead men usually tell no tales; but a 4000 year old skeleton from Balathal, Rajasthan (40 km north east of Udaipur) has revealed some fascinating tales.

This skeleton, of a man who probably was 35+/-10 years and 5’10”, was found in a settlement which flourished from 3700 – 1820 BCE; the people there had pottery and copper and cultivated barley as well as wheat. He was buried between 2500 – 2000 BCE — much before the decline of the Harappan civilization — and was a leper. In fact, this skeleton is the oldest example of leprosy in the world.

But he was not Harappan: he belonged to the Ahar-Banas culture. In the Mewar region of Rajasthan, hunter-gatherers developed farming communities in the middle of the fifth millennium BCE, independent of the Harappan culture. By around 2500 BCE, they became prosperous and had fortified settlements, roads, and lanes. Also, the earliest burned brick (4000 BCE) was found in Gilund at this site[2].

By 2500 BCE, Ahars had trade relations with the Harappans to the north. They also had trade relations with their contemporaries in South and Central India and the skeleton confirms it. This skeleton was buried with vitrified ash from cow dung. So far the Southern Neolithic ash mounds found in South Deccan and North Dharwar were believed to be cattle settlements or the result of  cow dung disposal. Now we can speculate that they were the result of funeral activities of a shared tradition.

Besides this domestic connection, these people had international contacts as well. There are two strains of leprosy: an Asian one and an East African one. It is possible that the African one was transmitted to Asia around 40,000 BCE or vice versa at a much later date. The second one seems to have happened since lerosy depends on human contact and it must been transmitted over the trading network involving the Ahars, Harappans,people of Magan, Mesopotamians and Egyptians.

This skeleton fits well with  the Atharva Veda (Hymn 23, 24) making it the earliest historical reference to leprosy. The Ebers papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE has been interpreted to contain evidence of leprosy, but the earliest affected skeleton found in Egypt has been dated only to 400 – 250 BCE.

Another point is regarding the burial; after 2000 BCE, burial was uncommon except for some special cases like infants and spiritual people. Harappan skeletons were both cremated — there is evidence at Sanauli at least — and buried, but true burials are very few compared to expected numbers. Many archaeologists believe that cremation must have been widely practised by Harappans. Also, at Dholavira and other sites, dozens of graves turned out to be without any bones which implies symbolic burials.

It is believed that the burial at Balathal followed the Vedic tradition: lepers were buried alive in some parts of India. Also there is evidence that diseased bodies were sometimes not cremated.

Two other skeletons were also obtained from Balathal, but of a later date[3]. They were found in the padmasana or samadhi posture — a striking evidence of yoga practice and burial of people perhaps regards as spiritually advanced. Even now in India, spiritually advanced people are not cremated, but buried.

(One of the skeletons from Balathal in samadhi posture)

Also:

The excavations reveal a large number of bull figurines indicating the Ahar people worshipped the bull [6]. At Marmi, a site near Chittorgarh, these figures have been found in abundance indicating it could be a regional shrine of the bull cult of this rural population. Discovery of cow-like figurines in Ojiyana, the first site found on the slope of a hill, has baffled archaeologists. Cow-worship was not a known Ahar practice. “There are no humps and we can see small teats,” B.R.Meena, superintendent, ASI Jaipur circle, who undertook the excavation, says, “These are certainly cows.” Other archaeologists suspect them to be bull calves but insist if further studies prove these to be cows, one could infer that the cow was a revered animal and the Hindu practice of treating the cow as a holy animal can thus be of pre-Aryan antiquity. [Were they cow worshippers?]

Vedic burial, skeletons in samadhi posture, cow worship in a civilization contemporary with Harappa —- does this imply that the Ahar-Banas were Vedic people or Ahar culture was adopted by later Vedic culture or Ahars adopted it from an earlier Vedic culture?

The large number of bull figurines found at Ahar and Gilund could indicate a bull cult[6]. There is a debate over if the figurines represent bulls or cows, but these figurines were part of the second phase of the Ahar culture (2100 – 1800 BCE) or as late as 1600 BCE [7] and are the only clue to the religious beliefs of the Ahars[8].

Another clue is the time frame of these skeletons. While the leper was dated to 2000 BCE, the skeletons in samadhi were from700 BCE[9]. So while the leper burial was unusual, there is nothing unusual about burying a man in samadhi posture by the Early Historical Period.

While the bull figurines and the skeletons in samadhi were known earlier, this leper skeleton has added new information about this less known culture. Hopefully as more papers come out, we will get a clear picture on their religious beliefs, such as if this Vedic burial was an exception or a common practice.

Notes:

  1. This post is based on [4]. Many thanks to Michel Danino for information and images of the samadhi skeletons and Harappan burials. Also thanks to Gwen Robbins, the primary author of [2, 4], for patiently answering many questions.

Reference:

  1. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective by Gregory L. Possehl
  2. A panel on the The Cultural Diversity of Northwestern South Asia at the time of the Indus Civilization convened by Prof. Gregory Possehl (University of Pennsylvania) and Prof. Vasant Shinde: Deccan College
  3. Gwen Robbins, Veena Mushrif, V.N. Misra, R.K. Mohanty and V.S. Shinde, Human Skeletal Remains from Balathal: a Full Report and Inventory, Man and Environment, XXXII(2) 2007, pp. 1-25.
  4. Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.), Gwen Robbins et al.
  5. Piecing the Ahar Puzzle by Rohit Parihar
  6. Encyclopedia of Prehistory: South and Southwest Asia By Peter Neal Peregrine
  7. Tribal roots of Hinduism By Shiv Kumar Tiwari
  8. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan by Bridget Allchin
  9. The skeletons have also been dated all way back to 1800 BCE
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